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F1’s net-zero pledges are colliding with its ambitions to go truly global

Oscar Piastri of McLaren during the Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Corniche Circuit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on March 9, 2024.

Nuphoto | Nuphoto | Getty Images

LONDON — To any reasonable observer, Formula 1’s plan to increase the number of races in its calendar from 24 to 30 appears at odds with the sport’s pledge to be net zero by 2030.

But with the Japanese Grand Prix next weekend, embattled F1 boss Stefano Domenicali will finally be able to provide a rebuttal.

Moving the Suzuka Circuit from its traditional October booking to April is part of F1’s strategy to “regionalize” the racing calendar into four geographic blocks, reducing the distance teams must travel between events and opening weeks where new races can register.

In theory, tight regional timetables and advances in sustainable aviation fuels make this a plausible strategy for reducing carbon emissions. But to execute it, Domenicali will have to perform some advanced logistical juggling. Not only must it balance the competing interests of at least 21 different countries, but also reduce the sport’s total carbon footprint (estimated at around 256,000 tonnes in 2019) by more than 50%.

What makes this feat of organizational dexterity even more sensational is that it must be achieved in balance in an increasingly unequal political landscape. Spa (Belgium), Monza (Italy) and Monaco are among the European circuits yet to receive contract extensions beyond 2025, while deep-pocketed countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have signed agreements that will keep them in the market. calendar until 2030.

F1’s growing ambitions in the Middle East and the United States have sometimes transcended the sport. On May 31, 2023, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo sent a letter to Domenicali, specifying that “the need for you to establish a balanced calendar between Europe, the Far East and America/Middle East will not be to the detriment of Belgium”, stressing that the local government had made “numerous financial investments” to keep the Spa-Francorchamps Circuit on the calendar.

But there is investment, and then there is investment, and in March, Domenicali suggested that instead of longer-term contracts, European tracks would be “rotated” each year, telling reporters that he ” was talking with other promoters in Europe to do something.” this will be announced soon.

Formula One Group CEO Stefano Domenicali interacts with Grid Kids on the grid ahead of the Australian F1 Grand Prix at Albert Park Circuit on March 24, 2024.

Clive Mason – Formula 1 | Formula 1 | Getty Images

This lack of clarity, however, could make it more difficult for many of these circuits to meet their own emissions targets.

“Without a long-term contract with F1, it’s really difficult to invest in sustainability initiatives because the (Grands Prix) represent a very important part of your revenue,” said Stéphane Bazire, head of sustainability at Silverstone, at CNBC. Silverstone is one of three old European circuits to have received a contract extension until 2030 (along with the Red Bull Ring in Austria and the Hungaroring in Hungary), as F1 seeks to free up space for races in the big cities.

This move away from purpose-built trails such as Spa in favor of urban trails, however, creates its own sustainability challenges. “Urban racing could take the sport to a new location, where people can access the track by public transport, but how many of the fans who traveled to Las Vegas or Singapore are local?” Bazire asked.

It seems that the answer is not multiple. Las Vegas airports welcomed 400 private jets arriving for the Grand Prix, while Singapore saw a 63% increase in flight arrivals in September compared to the previous year, when its Grand Prix was pushed back to September. ‘october.

This influx of fans leads to more revenue, which gives these sites the budgets to veto any scheduling negotiations. The $35 million hosting fee paid by Singapore in 2023, for example, gives it greater influence than countries like Japan, which paid just $25 million.

“I told Stefano that I don’t want this change to happen,” said Colin Syn, vice-president of the Singapore Grand Prix, when it was pointed out that moving Singapore rather than Japan to April would have more meaning given their respective climates. “We have been running the race in late September since 2008 (and) this has created a routine for those who come to watch the race and if we change it we risk losing some of our most regular ticket buyers.”

So it is Japan that has given up its place in the race for the 2024 calendar. And others are under pressure to follow suit.

Attempts to move the Canadian Grand Prix from its traditional June venue to coincide with one of the three American races were also rebuffed by Canadian GP president François Dumontier, who suggested that moving the race in the calendar would involve weather conditions.

Instead, teams must travel from Miami in May to Monaco, then travel to the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix in Italy before turning around and returning to Canada in June.

Time to look elsewhere?

Even if Domenicali managed to find a way to implement this strategy, some believe that “regionalization” is unlikely to be the silver bullet that F1 needs to achieve its sustainability goals.

“Separating the schedule into blocks ignores the fact that the majority of teams have to make repairs and obtain parts from their main garage somewhere in the world.” explained Madeleine Orr, expert in sports ecology.

“By putting more races on the calendar, you force teams to fly through the air to recover parts or make repairs on time.”

The Williams F1 team found out the hard way after a huge crash in Australia forced them to send one of their two cars on a 16,500-mile trip to the UK for repairs before bringing it back in Japan in time for the next race.

There is no easy solution. “Teams need the cars and equipment they had at the last race to make their data consistent,” Paul Fowler, head of motorsport logistics at DHL, told CNBC.

“There’s talk of super warehouses in four locations around the world that teams could use, but that’s an ongoing discussion.”

Carlos Sainz of Spain and third placed Ferrari celebrate on the podium during the Italian F1 Grand Prix at Autodromo Nazionale Monza on September 3, 2023 in Monza, Italy.

Dan Istitene – Formula 1 | Formula 1 | Getty Images

As these discussions drag on, F1 will have to look for other ways to achieve its goals. Instead of waiting for this zero-emissions schedule to materialize, teams are rightly turning to engineering solutions – something F1 is more adept at.

Mercedes has already pledged millions of euros to fund research into so-called sustainable aviation fuels, which it says will roughly halve its aviation footprint. Meanwhile, new regulations requiring cars to run on 100% sustainable fuels by 2026 are forcing teams to invest more in eco-engineering.

As the chances of achieving its sustainable development goals seem slimmer, Domenicali will have no choice but to step on the accelerator. As Madeleine Orr points out, “if there is an industry that could achieve this at the last minute thanks to a miracle technology, it is F1”.

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